Donald Trump and the Poor Received Equal Billing in Last Night's Debate


And women didn't come up at all. This and other oddities, in our telling tally of trendy terms.

Mike Carlson/Reuters

One good way to figure out what the candidates care about, or think people who will vote care about, is to figure out which words they repeat over and over and which ones they barely mention. Calculating how many times in Wednesday's debate Barack Obama and Mitt Romney used the words in this list of 27 terms can offer some insights. All 27 of them have come up in public discourse frequently over the past few months -- but they didn't all come up in the debate.

A few interesting takeaways: 

  • Only Romney seems to have acknowledged, directly if briefly, that there are Americans who aren't wealthy or middle-class. He was the only one to use the word "low-income" -- twice. One can argue that it's in Romney's interest to highlight poverty, since he hasn't been the president for the past four years, while Obama would rather not.
  • The president, meanwhile, mentioned the "middle class" six times more often than Romney did. Romney tended to prefer the phrase "middle-income," which Obama did not use. This may point to a philosophical difference: Romney's favored term is more neutral.
  • Oddly, Romney used the word "regulation" far more often than Obama -- perhaps to counteract the perception that he would get rid of all of it.
  • Obama used more words related to education, especially college education. The only time Romney mentioned the word "student," he was talking about grade-school students, not higher education.
  • In general, both candidates were eager to play to older voters, an important voting bloc. To Obama, they were more often "seniors"; to Romney, "retirees." Both of the candidates mentioned "entitlements" only once, preferring to use more neutral and specific terms like "Social Security" (Obama 6, Romney 3) and "Medicare" (Obama 19, Romney 32) despite the fact that moderator Jim Lehrer asked direct questions using the word "entitlements" twice. The start of Romney's answer to that question helps to explain why they avoided the word:
Well, Jim, our seniors depend on these programs, and I know anytime we talk about entitlements, people become concerned that something's going to happen that's going to change their life for the worse. And the answer is neither the president nor I are proposing any changes for any current retirees or near retirees, either to Social Security or Medicare. So if you're 60 or around 60 or older, you don't need to listen any further.

But for younger people, we need to talk about what changes are going to be occurring.

The list:

Words that were divided equally or near-equally between the candidates
Deficit: Obama 19, Romney 14
Families: Obama 16, Romney 12
Small business: Obama 13, Romney 12
Young people: Obama 2, Romney 2
Wealthy: Obama 1, Romney 1
Entitlements: Obama 1, Romney 1

Words Obama said more than Romney
Insurance: Obama 25, Romney 12

Middle class: Obama 19, Romney 3
Medicaid: Obama 8, Romney 4 (once when he was trying to change the subject)
Seniors: Obama 10, Romney 2
College: Obama 8, Romney 3
Social Security: Obama 6, Romney 3
Wall Street: Obama 6, Romney 1
Loan: Obama 5, Romney 2 (Obama used the phrase "student loan" twice)
Student: Obama 5, Romney 1

Words Romney said more than Obama
Medicare: Obama 19, Romney 32
Regulation: Obama 3, Romney 15

Words only Romney said
Middle-income: 7
Retiree: 7
Poor: 4
Debt: 4
Low-income: 2
Elderly: 1

Words only Obama said
Millionaire: 2
Billionaire: 1

Words and phrases that didn't come up at all

Donald Trump, meanwhile, was mentioned four times. (Two apiece!)

Think of interesting terms we didn't search? A transcript is available at National Journal. Have at it in the comments.


Note: This includes only terms we deemed relevant to the debate, which primarily focused on the economy and on spending-related topics. (So the term "women" was relevant; the term "abortion" wasn't.) For terms like "middle class," we included both noun and adjective forms in our tally. We counted nouns both singular and plural, when they were used in the same way.

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Emily Chertoff is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's National channel.

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